A Conversation with My Younger Christian Self

A Conversation with My Younger Christian Self March 9, 2016

older talking to youngerYesterday I frustrated a whole lot of readers by posting a guest post that started out well but took a nose dive before it even got halfway through. It was, quite frankly, terrible; and not so much because it was poorly written. What made it so awful was how much of it was written from ignorance. The author kept making sweeping generalizations about subjects he clearly hadn’t studied, each time drawing conclusions which, miraculously, tracked perfectly with the beliefs of his own native evangelical Christianity. By the end of it my readers felt cheated somehow, led to believe that this would be something special only to be let down in the end because it contained nothing new at all.

Do you ever wish you could go back in time and speak to your younger self, explaining a few hard-earned lessons in advance so your younger self won’t have to learn things the hard way? As far as I know, that’s not physically possible, but for a writer like myself, I can still have a kind of conversation with the “Younger Me” because my own developing thought processes are right there in front of me, frozen in time for me to see. Unfortunately, this exercise won’t help the Younger Me much, but it sure is an educational experience for the Older Me.

What I’m saying is, as a number of you figured out before the day was through, that guest author was me.

I wrote that attempt at defending “the reasonable-ness of the faith” eleven years ago, while I was still very much an evangelical Christian believer. To me it is a fascinating snapshot of a mind trying to wrestle with the bigger questions, but unable to locate the resources necessary to find the answers he seeks. One of the biggest giveaways was its dated reference to Intelligent Design, as if that approach represented some up-and-coming, increasingly popular perspective among people who should know about these things. This article was written in 2005, several months before the Supreme Court finally ruled in Kitzmiller vs. Dover that Intelligent Design (ID) should be classified along with Creationism as an inescapably religious position which does not belong in a public science classroom.

What is also fascinating to me is how it started out as an attempt to show the rational nature of the Christian faith, specifically, but came to a screeching halt the moment it got past the point of saying it’s at least possible that a Supreme Being exists but couldn’t really supply anything further beyond that. I originally wrote this to be the first of several articles attempting to rationally defend my own beliefs, but I stopped before I could write another one. That in itself is a telling detail, isn’t it?

Why Did You DO That?

I took the time to share this old article with you for a number of reasons. First, I wanted you to see for yourself what it looks like for a religious person to sincerely wrestle with his own beliefs out loud, especially realizing in retrospect that the ideas (and ignorance!) I expressed all those years ago didn’t represent the end of the line for me. They were simply a snapshot of where my brain was at the moment, trying to process all the doubts and questions I was mulling over at the time.

Does it not encourage you, just a little bit, to realize that the same guy who said all those things yesterday could one day, eleven years later, look back on what he said before and cringe at his own former thoughts? It made me physically uncomfortable to read my own words. But consider this:  Many of the people with whom you interact on blogs and social media are pushing back and challenging your skepticism because they themselves are seeking assurances that they have not been duped by their own upbringing. Sure, they may appear completely convinced that the truth is on their side now, but in a few more years those same people may very well look back and roll their eyes at their younger selves just as hard as I am doing myself today.

EmbarassedBuzz

They may very well be fighting you because they’re really fighting themselves. You’re just there to help them think out loud, to be a sounding board, if you will.

Finally, I posted my old thoughts yesterday because I wanted to use them as an illustrative example of all the things wrong with the way people try to defend their own religious beliefs. I spend enough time as it is debunking the apologetic preaching of other people like Tim Keller and John Piper, but I figured it could be an interesting exercise to take a minute to tear into my own former ramblings for a change. This way, I can speak with absolute authority on what the author “really meant” when he said such-and-such, because this time I am that person. Or at least I was.

So let’s stop for a minute and count just how many wrong turns I took in this post, and let’s see if we can gain from this a better grasp of what is going on inside the minds of devout believers like my younger self. Maybe this exercise will help us better understand how and where those leaps of logic happen. And who knows? Maybe for some this will give them a little more compassion toward people who devote time and energy to rationalizing religious beliefs. Somewhere inside there is a person who really does want to find the truth, wherever it leads them.

Bro, Do You Even Science?

Looking back at what I said, I really do feel like Younger Neil started off on a high note, honestly admitting how much he struggled with resolving the tensions between what he was taught to believe and his own desire to understand the world around him. But when it came time to make a case for what I believed, I began with an argument from ignorance.

“Exactly what is antimatter anyway, and where did it come from? Is this stuff also self-existent? Can we produce an experiment that will demonstrate the characteristics of antimatter?”

Actually, yes, we can. We have demonstrated the presence of antimatter many times, but clearly I wasn’t aware of that. Like most Christians, I had read just enough discussions of physics to think I knew something about it, but more than likely what I read was limited to books and articles written by other Christians who had something to prove. As they say, “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”

“An impressive array of physicists, mathematicians, biologists, and philosophers are coming full circle to rejecting the ‘random chance’ explanation of our lives in favor of a view they are calling ‘Intelligent Design.'”

Oh, it just makes me cringe. Make it go away, please.

First of all, there never was any “impressive array” of thinkers within any of those fields who adopted the ID view. As I alluded to above, just a few short months after I wrote this piece, it came out during a Supreme Court case that proponents of “Intelligent Design” were doing nothing more than regurgitating earlier creationist literature and just changing a word or two here and there for rebranding purposes, this time around allowing for an older universe but keeping to all the same talking points as before.

One astute investigator at the time combed through decades of publications and uncovered examples of edits between versions of their most popular book, Of Pandas and People, revealing blatant examples of simple word replacements which changed nothing at all from the old creationist rhetoric:

smokinggun
Source: NCSE

It’s embarrassing to look back on your younger self and see how taken in you were by a sales pitch which you never should have bought. I really didn’t think I was that easy to dupe, but this goes to show how easily we will believe things that support what we already believed before.

“Biologists tell us that mutation and natural selection are primarily destructive, restricting forces. These processes work to eliminate characteristics, not to create them. Yet these processes are supposed to account for all of the complex diversity around us?”

Make it stop, OMG. It hurts. First of all, mutation isn’t a destructive force. It’s just the opposite, in fact. Mutation is what generates the endless biodiversity we see today. What I said was true in a sense for the second principle but not the first. How was I that ignorant? Didn’t I have science classes growing up?

I did, but they were almost all taught by evangelical Christians who didn’t really believe in evolution. Or if they taught it, they held to some kind of half-assed version like Tim Keller allows into his treatment of the subject. Reading their reluctant accommodation of common ancestry, one almost imagines them holding it far away from themselves, as if handling something contaminated with harmful radiation. It’s as if they pick it up and hold it just long enough to take a picture of themselves holding it, but then throw it far away from themselves the moment the photo is taken. Now they feel they have to go wash themselves because they’ve handled something dangerous.

“Fossil evidence gets skimpiest at the points of transition—precisely the places where they should be the most abundant. Too many mutations occur without reasonable cause.”

Where am I even getting this stuff? It may be true that the emergence of discernibly new species often comes in waves or spurts, but there’s no reason why there should be more fossils left behind during those periods of intensified transition than during other times. The notion that our fossil records have large gaps in them is a myth perpetuated by creationists and their ID stepchildren in order to leave room for God in the process.

For what it’s worth, there are plenty of Christians and religious people of other stripes who accept everything that our scientific disciplines tell us about evolution without needing to twist or distort what we have found in order to say “goddidit.” For example, many of the writers who contribute to Biologos are evangelical Christians who reject all God-of-the-gaps arguments because they realize that’s a dead end. It’s bad science to stop every time you see an incomplete picture just to say “…therefore, God!” It’s also very weak argumentation.

In the end these are all arguments from ignorance. I’m embarrassed to witness such a cavalier display of talking out of my own posterior. But there it is. I’m willing to own up to it in order to make a point. Just because the people you talk with today seem clueless about science doesn’t mean they always will be. So many good resources have come out even in the last eleven years that I think if Younger Neil were the same age today, he might have been spared this painfully awkward experience.

Do You Even Philosophy?

I would have never considered myself an anti-intellectual back in the day. In fact, I’ve always had a strong inner nerd and I’ve always been drawn to friends who exhibited the same. But boy, did I still harbor some astoundingly anti-intellectual sentiments! I must have picked them up from my surroundings.

“God is not dead anywhere except in the hallowed halls of academia and in those minds thoroughly saturated by their system of belief.”

It’s like a preacher wrote this, you know? Sheesh. I have so many thoughts about this line of argumentation but mainly I’m just marveling in retrospect at how I could have harbored such a negative view of higher education. It’s like I don’t even recognize this person at this point. He’s a vague memory. But reading this does help me recreate the mentality I inhabited at the time, and it’s a little unnerving to realize I was so enamored with my own theology that I could be so disparaging of higher learning.

“My point is that they are encouraging me to take a leap of faith into an explanation that has at least as many holes in it as does theism.”

“You can’t get away from faith.”

Ooooh, I want to sit my old self down and just smack him for this one. Just because we have to draw inferences from the data we have in order to take steps forward (which can then be tested and retested to see if we’re moving in the right direction) doesn’t mean that science depends on faith of any kind. That’s equivocation, and I’ve written about it many times on this blog. Not all beliefs are “faith.” There’s a reason why those are two separate words. The latter is a subset of the former, but that doesn’t mean they are interchangeable. That’s an erroneous linguistic trick and I’m ashamed I ever used it.

“It was a real breakthrough for me when I realized that science cannot disprove the existence of God. Even if science were to supply us with an explanation for all physical processes, it still would not disprove the existence of an intelligent Designer underneath it all.”

Now, I don’t think that statement is really wrong. Technically speaking, I don’t think reason disproves the existence of a Supreme Being. Or at least, not all of them. But the moment a religion starts making logically inconsistent statements, or even worse, testable claims about reality, now we’ve ventured into the territory of logic and empirical observation. Some gods really can be disproved because they are predicated on claims which are falsifiable. The smart religions are the ones which figure out how to make all of their central ideas completely unfalsifiable, like a horoscope or a prediction from Nostradamus.

“Atheism is the result of indoctrination. It takes years of ‘education’ to convince human beings that God does not exist.”

Hmmm. Is this entirely wrong? I don’t know how I feel about that. A number of my readers opined that “atheism is the default position,” and I’ve heard that said many times before. But I disagree. I think we have evolved to see agency where there is none, and humans are particularly prone to projecting their own personalities onto the world around them. I suspect that if we were to wipe out all god belief tomorrow, it would show up again in another form before much time had passed at all.

Is it really that far off to say that atheism is a product of education? Would that even necessarily be a bad thing? I guess you can disagree with me on that one (and many of you will), but I’m not convinced that atheism is a default position—not the way I define it, anyway. I don’t agree that it’s only “a lack of belief in gods.” Most atheists I know also have a positive belief that there are no gods. They don’t prefer to frame it that way, but I suspect some of their reluctance stems from seeing how routinely religious people equivocate the way I did above. Few things frustrate skeptics more than trying to use reason to appeal to a person who then dismisses their rationality as an alternative religious position. It shows they can’t tell the difference, and that is incredibly disappointing.

Deconverting in Slow Motion

Nestled within this mangled mess of misfired musings, two statements in particular stand out to me as evidences that Younger Neil was beginning to grasp a couple of things which would later help to usher him out of his religion altogether. I wrote this four years before I came to realize that I no longer had good reasons to believe what I previously believed. But the signs of a future departure were there, like seeds waiting to break out of the soil at some point down the road.

“It seems obvious to me that the human mind is here doing its job: helping us to understand what we already believe. We fancy that our minds tell us what to believe, perhaps through a responsible use of science and logic. But at every turn I see the mind merely providing justification and rationalization for things already believed.”

I wrote this as an indictment of the skeptical mind, rejecting belief in the Christian God, but eventually I realized it can also be said of the religious mind. It took me years to finally apply that analysis to my own mind, but ultimately I did, and it made me see just how many different ways I was playing mind games with myself. In time I found this discovery to be a two-edged sword which, when applied to myself, carved a path for me out of my own belief system.

And perhaps most tellingly of all, when I finished laying out what to me at the time seemed to be a case for the legitimacy of a belief in a Supreme Being, I reached the end of my presentation only to discover that an endless series of unjustifiable steps—no, leaps—lay ahead of me before I could make a case for anything further.

“A mere belief in God is a far cry from a whole hearted acceptance of the Christian gospel. Once I have satisfied myself that, contrary to what I previously feared, it is not unreasonable to believe in a Divine Creator, I still have a large leap to make in order to accept that a man was raised from the dead long before I was even born. Is that reasonable to believe? Not really. Do I believe it anyway? Yes, I do.”

What you are witnessing here is a slow-motion, frame-by-frame snapshot of a man thinking his way out of his own belief system. I know it doesn’t look like it at first glance. But that’s exactly what’s happening. You’re just catching the transition on the front end. This is what it looks like just before a man gives up the Ghost, so to speak.

So I hope you haven’t felt like this was a waste of your time. To me, it wasn’t. Walking back through my own former state of mind reminded me just how hard I was working to resolve the tensions that were playing out in my own mind. It’s humbling to look back and read how arrogantly I came across even as I was speaking out of ignorance, and I’m more than just a little surprised to discover how much anti-intellectual sentiment I was harboring even into my adult years.

But I do hope that this inspires a little bit more patience in some of my readers, encouraging them to trust that some day down the road, these people with whom they discuss matters of science, history, sociology, and philosophy may very well find themselves looking back at the things they once said, shaking their heads and cringing as badly as I did at the things they once believed.

[Featured Image: Adobe Stock]

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